Britain softens its line on Bahrain

A group of British MPs have "hailed the positive political and economic atmosphere reigning in Bahrain as well as landmark development strides", the Gulf Daily News ("The Voice of Bahrain") reports today.

The delegation of MPs, headed by Richard Ottaway, chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, have been visiting Bahrain this week as part of a parliamentary review of Britain's policy towards Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Whether the MPs' views were really as favourable as the news report suggests is still unclear, since Bahraini media have a habit of misrepresenting comments from foreigners to make them appear more sympathetic to the regime than they actually are. However, there have been other recent signs that the British government is becoming less critical of the Gulf kingdom's human rights policies and its lack of serious efforts at political reform.

Earlier this week, British ambassador Iain Lindsay (who also sat in on some of the MPs' meetings in Bahrain) gave an interview to the Gulf Daily News which appeared extraordinarily sympathetic to the Bahraini government's position:

  • Lindsay repeated Bahrain's official propaganda line that Iran is providing support to people in the opposition "who are bent on violence" – though he declined to provide any evidence.

  • He attacked a recent report from Human Rights Watch about the lack of progress in Bahrain, describing it as "deeply unhelpful, condescending and patronising".

  • In contrast to previous British complaints about the slowness or lack of progress, Lindsay said he did not expect it to be quick: "We know from our own experience in the UK and Northern Ireland that this sort of process can take a long time." He also claimed that the current political dialogue in Bahrain is supported by "the whole of the international community" when in fact there is a good deal of scepticism about it.

  • In addition to that, the ambassador talked about cooperation between the two governments and £1 billion-worth of business opportunities for British firms in Bahrain.

In the four days since the interview was published there have been no complaints or clarifications from the British embassy in Bahrain or the Foreign Office in London – which points to the conclusion that Lindsay's remarks were accurately reported and reflect current British policy. (On the question of Iranian involvement, a Foreign Office submission to the Commons committee in January made similar claims, saying that Iran and "other foreign actors" are "offering more direct support to some radical Bahraini Shia opposition elements which are pursuing increasingly violent tactics".)

The trouble with this softening British position is that it gives Bahrain's government less incentive to implement the changes that are necessary for its long-term future. 

The relief felt by the king's supporters in Bahrain can be seen froma letter published in the Gulf Daily News on Wednesday, headed: "At last an envoy who speaks our language!"

The anonymous author, who signs himself/herself "Bahraini citizen", frequently appears in the paper's letters section supporting the Bahrain government's policies. On this occasion, he/she said the British ambassador had "made a number of surprising departures from the usual bland and safe diplomatic language", and continued:

"We welcome the fact that the British ambassador's portrayal of events in Bahrain, and his condemnation of acts of terrorism and foreign interference is remarkably similar to most citizens' views on these issues, and this is perhaps a refreshing sign that international audiences are beginning to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the Bahrain situation."

Ambassador Lindsay was posted to Bahrain in January 2011, shortly before the anti-government protests began. His predecessor, Jamie Bowden was shifted to Oman following a campaign by Bahraini community leaders to have him removed. He was accused of abusing Bahrain's sovereignty by meeting members of the opposition Wefaq party.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 29 March 2013